HL Deb 30 January 1996 vol 568 cc1364-82

6.48 p.m.

The Minister of State, Department of Trade and Industry (Lord Fraser of Carmyllie)

My Lords, I have it in command from Her Majesty the Queen to acquaint the House that Her Majesty, having been informed of the purport of the Chemical Weapons Bill, has consented to place her prerogative and interest, so far as they are affected by the Bill, at the disposal of Parliament for the purposes of the Bill.

I beg to move that the Chemical Weapons Bill be now read a second time. The Bill will enable the United Kingdom to ratify the Chemical Weapons Convention which seeks to rid the world of chemical weapons. United Kingdom ratification will help to bring forward the date on which the convention will enter into effect. This is a measure which I am confident is supported by all political parties and by all noble Lords.

Chemical weapons are not weapons of the past. They are weapons of mass destruction and they still pose an awful threat. Nerve agents many times more deadly than the chemicals used in the First World War are held by some countries and are sought by others to add to their arsenals. It is a threat that we must seek to eliminate. The Chemical Weapons Convention offers the promise to prohibit chemical weapons globally and to stop proliferation. This legislation would enable the United Kingdom to become one of the founding state parties to the convention.

The convention, which the United Kingdom signed on 13th January 1993, is the fruit of some 20 years of difficult negotiation. It is the first treaty to provide for a verifiable worldwide ban on an entire class of weapons of mass destruction. The United Kingdom, which no longer possesses any offensive chemical weapons, has played an active and major part in support of the treaty throughout the negotiations. This is a good treaty and is one we support fully; 160 states have signed the convention and I hope that others will sign in due course.

The convention prohibits the acquisition, development, production, stockpiling, retention, transfer and use of chemical weapons and requires their destruction. It bans military preparations for the use of chemical weapons and assisting others to do those things. A key element of the convention is that it requires all existing stocks of chemical weapons to be destroyed together with the facilities used to produce them. Each country must forbid its citizens from undertaking any activity which is prohibited by the convention. The convention rightly addresses not just actual chemical munitions and prepared agents, but also the chemicals used in their manufacture.

To check that states are complying with the terms of the convention, and to provide mutual assurance that there is no longer a threat from chemical weapons, the Chemical Weapons Convention provides a powerful verification regime. It is unprecedented in its extent. Its effective operation will provide assurance that the threat from chemical weapons has been removed.

The verification regime contains three key elements: declarations, inspections and trade controls. Declarations are required by each country periodically in relation to companies and others using chemicals of concern. Requirements are graded according to the threat the chemicals pose. Chemicals listed in the three schedules to the convention must be declared and absolute limits are imposed on the production and stocking of some of them. Sites producing a fourth category of chemicals known as "discrete organic chemicals" must also be declared if their production level rises above threshold levels. Unfortunately, many of the chemicals which might be used for chemical weapons also have common industrial applications. The requirement to make declarations on activities in chemicals of concern is a significant deterrent to potential proliferators.

Inspections will be undertaken by an international inspectorate based in the Hague. There will be two main types of inspection: routine inspections will check accuracy of the declarations; and "challenge inspections" which will be undertaken at short notice, 12 hours, at any site where there are grounds for suspecting it is in breach of the convention. Challenge inspections can be requested by any state party.

Trade controls will be imposed progressively. Initially, trade in the most toxic chemicals—those in Schedule 1—will be controlled, and Schedule 2 chemicals will be controlled after three years. Existing trade controls cover many of the trade control requirements of the convention. Others can be implemented using existing legislation and there is no need for them to be implemented through the Chemical Weapons Bill.

Clearly, the declaration and destruction of existing stocks of chemical weapons and of chemical weapons production facilities must be verified. In addition, the convention provides for controls on chemicals which can be used for chemical weapons purposes and on their precursor chemicals in order to prevent the reintroduction of chemical weapons.

A new international body, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, will be set up when the convention enters into force to undertake its implementation. In particular, its Technical Secretariat will provide the inspectors responsible for carrying out the verification activities which I have described.

The convention will come into force six months after 65 signatory countries have ratified it. So far, 47 have done so; 28 of those ratified during the course of 1995. We estimate that the convention is likely to enter into force towards the end of this year. As yet the key signatories of the United States and the Russian Federation have not ratified. I need hardly say that it is vitally important that they do so as between them they hold some 90 per cent. of the world stockpile of chemical weapons. I am pleased to be able to inform your Lordships that both are committed to destroying their stockpiles and intend to become full members of the convention. The UK will play its part in encouraging them to ratify the convention quickly.

In the meantime, a preparatory commission is working in the Hague to develop the many detailed arrangements for implementation so that the time before entry into force is not lost. We are playing an active part in that work.

Each state party to the convention is required to establish a "national authority" to act as the focal point for the operation of the convention in that state. In the UK, the national authority will be the Department of Trade and Industry.

In preparing the legislation now before the House, the Government have undertaken extensive consultation with industry, academia, and research bodies. I am pleased to say that industry has been involved through all the stages of implementing the convention and during its negotiation. Further, industry supports the convention.

My department issued a discussion document last January. A Bill was subsequently issued in draft in July for consultation. The purpose of that consultation was to explain to those affected, not just those in the chemicals industry, the requirements of the convention and to help them to prepare for its implementation; secondly, to seek industry's views on points in relation to declaration procedures; and thirdly, to seek views on our planned approach to implementation in the United Kingdom.

The key messages in response to the consultation were that unavoidable burdens must be minimised; that industry and others need help in dealing with declarations and inspections; that strict measures are needed to preserve commercial confidentiality; and that the operation of the DTI national authority must be seen to be effective.

We have sought to address the concerns expressed during that consultation. In some cases this has resulted in provisions in the Bill. In other cases, concerns have been addressed in other ways. For example, commercial confidentiality is protected through strict rules laid down in the convention for the handling of sensitive information by national authorities and the international organisation. We shall insist that the rules are strictly maintained. The DTI has a good record of protecting commercial secrets, but to address concerns about protection of commercial proprietary information the Bill makes provision for giving statutory protection to information collected as a result of the Act or the convention.

A second example is that the Bill provides that the DTI national authority will issue an annual report about its activities and the operation of the Act. This will help to make its work more transparent and enhance proper parliamentary scrutiny. Thirdly, my department is committed to making the declarations process as easy as possible and will provide assistance to sites being inspected.

Perhaps I may make it clear that the process of consultation will continue once the convention is in operation. The national authority will need advice from a wide range of sources on a broad spectrum of issues in order to maintain the effectiveness of its operations. This advice will best be obtained in some areas through formal committees and in others through less formal bilateral contacts.

Perhaps I may turn briefly to the provisions of the Bill. I must start by making it clear that this is not a convention about governments only. Article VII of the convention requires us to forbid both individuals and legal entities to undertake any activity prohibited to a state party and we are required to enforce that through penal sanctions. I therefore make no apology for the inclusion in this Bill of the new powers and regulations necessary to enable the Government to honour the United Kingdom's obligations under the convention.

Although Notes on Clauses were made available in the Library before Christmas, perhaps I may briefly outline those clauses. Clauses 1 to 3 prohibit chemical weapons. Clauses 4 to 10 set out procedures for the identification, and, if necessary, the seizure and destruction of chemical weapons. Clauses 11 to 18 set out procedures for the destruction or alteration of any facility which may be identified as a chemical weapons production facility.

Clauses 19 and 20 provide for the very toxic chemicals contained in Schedule 1 to the convention to be controlled through the issue of licences.

Clause 21 enables the Secretary of State to require information where he suspects an offence under the Act has been, or is being, committed.

The convention requires the UK to make declarations to the international organisation in the Hague of its activities in certain chemicals. Clauses 22 and 23 enable the Secretary of State to obtain the necessary information.

Clauses 24 to 28 make the provisions needed for inspections under the terms of the convention to be successfully carried out.

Clauses 29 to 31 contain provisions relating to offences, such as powers to enable investigation where an offence is suspected, a power for a court to order forfeit an object connected with an offence, and restrictions on the initiation of prosecutions.

Clause 32 provides statutory protection for information provided under the Act or the convention.

Clause 33 requires the Secretary of State to issue an annual report to Parliament on the operation of the Act.

Clauses 34 to 39 contain various provisions, such as that service personnel committing any of the most serious offences be tried in a civil court rather than by court martial, the power to amend the Act consequent upon any amendment to the convention, and that the Bill binds the Crown, subject to certain qualifications.

I hope that I have signalled sufficiently clearly the Bill's ambit. I do not propose to elaborate further. As I said at the outset, it would seem to me that all rational beings would warmly support not merely the convention but its implementation in the UK through this legislation. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.—(Lord Fraser of Carmyllie.)

7.1 p.m.

Lord Peston

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his clear exposition of the Bill. On behalf of the Official Opposition, I must say immediately that we welcome this important piece of legislation. It would not be an exaggeration to say that the Convention on the Prohibition, Development, Stockpiling and Use of Chemical Weapons upon which the Bill is based is vital for global security.

Of course, my interests are industry and economics. I have no expertise in foreign affairs or armaments. But we all know only too well that the possibility or alleged use of chemical weapons by nation states or terrorist groups is never far from the surface of our concern. The Gulf War, Iraq's treatment of the Kurds last year, terrorist attacks in Tokyo and recent reports from Bosnia are all evidence of that.

It is vitally important for the UK to uphold the convention to which we are a signatory. It is also highly desirable—I think I understood the Minister to be saying this—for the UK to be among the first 65 ratifying signatories to the treaty for reasons which the House well knows and which were outlined partly in what the Minister said and in other documents.

As your Lordships will recall, the UK signed the convention on 13th January 1993—fully three years ago—following the public commitment of Her Majesty's Government at the London G7 economic summit which had occurred some 18 months previously. Our commitment involves the UK being an original party to the treaty.

If I have it right, the convention will enter into force once 180 days have elapsed following 65 signatory states ratifying the convention and depositing their instruments of ratification with the UN Secretary-General. Again, I am not sure whether I missed what the Minister said, but my advice is that 47 of the original signatory states have deposited their ratifications. They include many EU member states—France, Germany, Italy, Spain and the Netherlands—together, I am very happy to say, with Commonwealth states such as Australia, Canada and South Africa.

The Minister mentioned the USA and Russia and their progress towards ratification, which is of course of enormous importance. There has been some uncertainty in those countries, but I believe I am right—I understood the Minister was confirming this—that the presidents of both those countries are now pushing hard for ratification. In that connection, I read some stories in a Sunday newspaper to the effect that the USA is finding some technical difficulties in disposing of its existing stockpile. I hope that that is not some kind of signal that something will go wrong with the ratification of the convention in that country. We would normally expect the USA to take a considerable lead in a matter such as this.

To revert to the UK, I believe that we would all agree that there would be disadvantages, even damage, caused to us if we were not among the ratifying signatories by the time the convention comes into force. I am sure that that is what the Minister is saying. My initial remark was that the Official Opposition are determined to see that our role is to help rather than hinder that.

I believe that I am correct in saying that, were one not to do so, one would suffer some adverse trade consequences. We should he obliged to remain outside the decision-making structures of the convention. The nationals of a country that did not ratify would not be employable as inspectors or for any of the 450 jobs which the treaty will create.

Again, to go over some of the technical ground, there will be a body called the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons which is to be based at the Hague and which already has a provisional technical secretariat. As I understand it—I hope the Minister will confirm this—an offshoot of the preparatory commission for the convention has the important tasks of watching progress towards ratification and hiring and training a large international corps of inspectors to be ready by the time the treaty comes into force.

Again, my advice is that the chief executive of that provisional secretariat is British, as are other key officials. Assuming that I am right, I must say that I am very pleased to hear that, because it is a reflection of the UK's important role during the long and arduous negotiations on the convention. To repeat, it would therefore be unthinkable for us not to be among the first 65 ratifying signatories. Again, to repeat almost ad nauseam, I interpret the Minister as saying that he feels a sense of urgency now and that this will go ahead with no delay.

The matter looked as if it were in abeyance at one time. That concerned me, because I believe it was presaged in a much earlier Queen's Speech. Your Lordships' House will now act with dispatch, but I should emphasise that despite the urgency of the timetable there is time to consider the Bill properly, thoroughly and constructively. I hope to make some contribution. I have in mind one or two possible improvements that we could deal with in Committee. When the Bill was dealt with in another place, similar improvement occurred.

I pointed out my ignorance of these matters when I started. I should now like to pay a particular tribute to those who advised me, notably the Royal Society of Chemistry, which has played a most helpful role in providing invaluable background briefing not just to me but to other noble Lords for our debate. I relied heavily also on Dr. Julian Perry-Robinson who is a distinguished academic of Sussex University. Without that kind of advice from a distinguished body such as the RSC many of your Lordships who lack the right scientific credentials and an understanding of the convention would he unable to deal with these matters. It is a pleasure to pay tribute to such a non-partisan professional body as the RSC. Oddly enough, at least three of its past presidents are Members of your Lordships' House but I do not see any of them in their seats at the moment.

It is important for the scientific community to assist Parliament when it is considering scientific subjects. I have to point out at the other extreme that, vital though this is to chemical firms within the chemical industry—I believe they have been in touch with the Minister—not one chemical firm has felt it worth while to get in touch with me, although they are one of our country's major industries. I also say with regret that we know that chemistry is one of the few subjects in our universities which still remain world class, but I have heard nothing of this subject from the CVCP. I suppose the heads of our universities these days are too busy running them as businesses to remember that they are supposed to be academic institutions.

The Government considered seriously at least one important amendment tabled in the other place, namely the provision of an annual report to Parliament. I was delighted that the Government responded to that initiative, which was pressed for by the Royal Society of Chemistry. However, I shall press again a matter with which the Government disagreed in the other place. It is the need for an advisory structure stronger than the Minister has outlined. I listened to him tonight and I shall listen to him again in Committee. However, for the sake of transparency, and agreeing that we must identify a national authority—in this case that will be the DTI, which will be the lead agency for the enabling legislation and all the associated matters—the DTI will need an advisory group of a formal kind.

I do not believe that that suggestion is controversial and I do not believe that a formal advisory group will give rise to controversy. It would be of practical help, and I am sorry that the Bill is totally silent on that point. The Ministry of Defence has an advisory mechanism in connection with chemical work at Porton Down. I believe that we can build on that and therefore we would not be breaking new ground. I shall press that matter and the issue of transparency when we sit in Committee.

Another matter to which the Minister referred is the licensing arrangements. I always have difficulty with the correct use of grammar there, but I believe that it is correct to say that another matter "is" the licensing arrangements. These are extensive. That does not fit grammatically either but I shall reflect on it when Hansard is printed. The Bill goes further than the convention in its adoption to the licensing system in the sense that the convention does not ban academic research involving the use of toxic chemicals, as in Schedule 1 to the Bill. It positively permits it under Article II(9)(a). That is one part of the convention that most impinges on industry and the academic community.

However, the Bill does ban research, subject to certain strict conditions which are set out in Clauses 19 and 20 which create the extensive system of licensing. Perhaps I may say immediately that I agree that, if we err at all, we should err on the safe side. We are concerned with chemistry, and the chemical industry and the nature of the chemical compounds that are used. We have a serious balancing problem to safeguard academic research in chemistry, which in this country is world class, but not to make it possible for potential criminals to assemble lethal or potentially lethal mixtures.

Perhaps I may draw to your Lordships' attention a most interesting and important article in last Sunday's Mail on Sunday, although I am sure it has been noted already. The article mentions my name, which is unusual. I was concerned about what was reported, in particular because it appears to throw into serious doubt the effectiveness of the chemical industry's own code of conduct which is designed to minimise the risks of such chemicals getting into the wrong hands. I do not wish to labour the point, but it appears that two different companies provided the Mail on Sunday&—which was posing either as an individual or as a bio-research centre—with thiodygycol and thionyl chloride. The point is that those chemicals are useable or involved in the manufacture of mustard gas. It appears that in supplying those chemicals the firms concerned breached the code of conduct and showed no sign of being suspicious about anyone wanting them. I raise that matter partly to congratulate the Mail on Sunday on what it did in exposing the problem and to ask the Minister whether he can comment upon that. If such an incident can take place, it is a serious problem.

Having said that, we must not go to the other extreme whereby those who have wholly legitimate research purposes will not be able to obtain chemicals, albeit in small quantities, which are vital for their work not only in chemistry but in related subjects such as biology and medicine. Perhaps I may refer to a great deal of the research which is chemical in nature on the neuro-chemical transmission process; that is, brain research and so forth. It is vital that we rid the world of chemical weapons, but we do not want to rid the world of the science of chemistry.

There is a great deal to be said on the issue of licensing and of the enormous powers granted to the Secretary of State as regards varying and revoking licences. However, at this late hour I believe that they are matters to be raised in Committee. I shall not press them on your Lordships tonight.

I wish to raise two further matters. First, the Minister said that he had engaged in widespread consulting, and I am sure that he must have done so. However, I wonder whether there has been enough publicity on what the Bill is all about and whether the potential has been sufficiently publicised. My guess, which relates to my point on the CVCP, is that, if we were to take a random sample of chemistry departments and ask them what they thought about the Bill, the majority would say, "What Bill?". If we were to say, "There is a problem that you might have", I guess that they would ask, "What problem'?". When proceeding with legislation that cannot he a satisfactory state of affairs.

In turning to my final point I know that I am in a minority. Noble Lords are aware of my obsession with the question of delegated legislation and all of that. There is an enormous amount of delegated legislation in the Bill. Your Lordships' Select Committee looked at the Bill and, even though Clause 36 is a Henry VIII clause, and seems to me to be a pretty extreme one, it said that it was willing to live with it. I am beginning to think that I am becoming an obsessive in my concern about such things. I would never criticise your Lordships' committee, but I am doubtful about that clause. I am particularly doubtful about whether the so-called negative procedure for dealing with such matters will do in this case, although I agree that it is entirely precedented. My view, and I quote the Royal Society of Chemistry, is that: The guiding principle which should apply is that Parliament should have the right, and the maximum possible opportunity, to consider and debate any proposed changes to this Act, before they are implemented". I have spoken longer than the Minister, for which I apologise, and I do not wish to delay your Lordships further. I merely repeat my point that, although I shall raise three or four serious issues in Committee, my main objective is precisely that of the Minister—to get the Bill on the statute book as quickly as possible and for the United Kingdom to be a ratifying country as rapidly as possible.

7.18 p.m.

Lord Mayhew

My Lords, this is a good Bill and my noble friends would wish me to welcome it and to express the hope that we shall soon be ratifying the convention. As the noble Lord, Lord Peston, said, there was a strange delay in bringing it forward. It is three years since we signed the treaty and during that period we on these Benches asked the Government to explain the delay. We were not reassured when we were told that there was a shortage of parliamentary time. We found that very hard to believe. Nevertheless, in retrospect it is clear that thorough, successful consultation was carried out and we are in time to ratify the convention before the expiry date.

I followed carefully what was said by the noble Lord, Lord Peston, about improving the Bill in Committee. I believe that my noble friends are of the same thinking. The noble Lord mentioned the fact that the Government yielded in Committee in another place on the question of an annual report. Personally, I should like to go further: I should like to see the Government agree to statutorily lay down a minimum content for that annual report; otherwise, it may lose much of its value. There is also more than one view on the question of an advisory committee. We shall listen carefully to what the Government say on that point.

It is certainly a little odd to note that, apparently, there will be only seven servants in the ministry concerned with monitoring and verifying the convention. Of course, seven is a magical number, but it seems very few for the huge task and responsibility which the Government will face. Surprisingly—and, I think, on the whole unfortunately—the legislation is presented as a DTI Bill. That is not in any way to disparage the able Ministers of that department who have presented it in both Houses. It seems to me that it should have been a Foreign Office Bill. I believe that we have become a little introspective about the subject. We seem interested only in perfecting the system of control in this country.

However, there are much wider and more difficult questions arising from the Bill and the convention. It would have been good to have had the Government's view on them. We are told that so many countries have ratified, so many have signed and that so many will ratify. But, what will happen in a few years time? There will he three groups of nations. The first group will have ratified and will have the administration, as we have, to ensure control. That group will in fact contain those countries which would not dream of using chemical weapons, with or without a convention.

The second group of countries will be those which will have ratified but which will not have the strength and integrity of administration to ensure control. For example, one thinks of the Soviet Union and many other countries. The third group of countries will be those which will have resisted international pressure to ratify. I should like to have heard the Government explain what measures they propose to ensure that the non-signers, the non-ratifiers, are sufficiently pressurised to make the convention universal. That is a very key point. How do the Government propose to deal with the situation?

Countries which sign the convention are, of course, renouncing their ability to deter an attack by chemical weapons through holding such weapons themselves. I have heard it argued that the reason why Hitler did not use chemical weapons in World War II was the fear of retaliation by such weapons. Well, the Government—and, indeed, both Opposition parties—agree that we should not hold chemical weapons in order to deter attack by such weapons. That is something which requires thinking about. It contrasts, for example, with the attitude of the Government and of the Opposition parties on nuclear weapons.

We are agreed that we should hold nuclear weapons in order to deter nuclear attack by other countries. There is a strange inconsistency in that respect. It cannot be argued that chemical weapons are crueller or more destructive than nuclear weapons; indeed, they arc not. Nuclear weapons are infinitely more destructive. They are crueller and more destructive of property than chemical weapons. It cannot be argued that chemical weapons are easier to detect and prevent than nuclear weapons. On the contrary, nuclear weapons are very much easier, or much less difficult, to detect and control internationally than is the case with chemical weapons. Why then do all of us on both sides of the House say, "Yes, we should hold nuclear weapons to deter nuclear attack; but, no, we should not hold chemical weapons to deter chemical attack"?

It is possible that the Government think that nuclear weapons can be used to deter chemical attacks. If so, they have never said so; and, indeed, conspicuously did not say so at the time of the Gulf War when it would certainly have been relevant. That is certainly not the policy of my noble friends.

I suppose that, logically, the only answer is that we should work urgently for the international suppression of all weapons of mass destruction, accepting as inevitable that that will take a long time; that it will involve every country in a marked loss of sovereignty; and that it will, from time to time, expose governments who are peace-loving and scrupulous to threats from governments who are neither. For all I know, that may he the Government's policy; or, indeed, they may have no policy.

Therefore, as I said, I should have liked the Foreign Office to handle the matter. In that way we could have been shown the broader thinking of the Government on such important and difficult questions. In the meantime, we welcome the convention which, among its many merits, has the advantage of helping progress in eliminating biological weapons. In that field, as in the field of chemical weapons, Britain has played a distinguished leading part. I believe that we should pay tribute here to our old colleague Lord Mulley who played a distinguished part in securing the biological weapons convention. If we can control and verify chemical weapons, that will help enormously those who are now struggling to do the same for biological weapons.

I do not wish to cover or repeat what the noble Lord, Lord Peston, said on points which I believe will be more appropriately dealt with in Committee. Similarly, I do not ask the noble and learned Lord to answer the very big and difficult and controversial questions that I have raised. Nevertheless, the Government must face up to the matter. They must decide what they will do about the non-signers, the non-ratifiers.

Are the Government content that well behaved, civilised governments should be exposed to threat from those who refuse to ratify and either maintain a chemical weapons capability, or at least maintain the capability to build a chemical weapons capacity? That is a very important question. I roughly sketched out what might be a logical answer, but I rather regret that, in handling the Bill, those wider considerations have not been taken into account.

7.28 p.m.

The Lord Bishop of Chelmsford

My Lords, I too welcome the Bill warmly. Its immediate purpose is to enable the United Kingdom to ratify the convention in time to be an original state party and also to play a full part from the outset in the proposed organisation for the prohibition of chemical weapons, which will provide the international inspectors and supervise the working of the convention. But, in the longer term, it will also provide a permanent legislative framework to enable this country to uphold the convention and ensure that everyone co-operates so that it is fully implemented by the United Kingdom in perpetuity.

The Churches have long encouraged the negotiation of a chemical weapons convention. It is now almost 20 years since a deputation from the British Council of Churches visited the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to discuss ways of promoting the UK Draft Convention of 1976. That draft convention was only one of the initiatives taken by the United Kingdom over the years towards the goal of a world-wide, verifiable treaty ban on chemical weapons.

That goal had to be in the interest of a country which no longer possessed chemical weapons but felt under threat from those possessed by others. Our national interest coincided happily with the wider interest of the international community. So the eventual CWC took shape, painstakingly crafted and negotiated, and in 1993 the United Kingdom was one of the original signatories. Now this Bill opens the way to ratification. We are happy with its approach. In particular we applaud the readiness of the Government to improve the content of the Bill in the light of consultation over successive drafts. It has got better at every stage.

There remains, however, one major area of concern which has already been mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Peston. Will the Government accept that an advisory committee should be added? Without this addition the Bill will be incomplete because it leaves the national authority for the CWC too isolated from key constituencies of support and expertise in science and in industry. An advisory committee is needed with the force of law; it is not enough for Ministers to say that naturally they will seek advice in various quarters which should remain unspecified in the Bill. The Bill should ensure that Parliament receives annual reports from the advisory committee, as well as from the national authority.

An advisory committee, I submit, would be a safeguard against the Act being used to interfere with legitimate chemical activity unrelated to the CWC—if that is a risk. Equally it would be a safeguard against the national authority proving insufficiently active and vigilant in its proper, preventive role—if that indeed is a risk. Both eventualities may be remote; let us hope so. But it is wise to take precautions and this is the simplest way available. The statutory existence of an advisory committee would be likely to hold the national authority to a steady course. It would help to ensure that the national authority continued to do its job; no more, no less. It would enhance the parliamentary accountability and transparency of the whole process of CWC implementation in the United Kingdom. It would also help to keep intact that broad unity of purpose in support of the convention which has been such an impressive feature of our public life.

Over many years British people in science, industry—and, I think, in the universities—and not least the Churches, have encouraged successive Ministers and officials first to secure a good convention and then to apply it. It belongs to us all. For let us remember that it is the United Kingdom that will come under the full set of international legal obligations when the convention comes into force; and the United Kingdom, not just the United Kingdom Government, is, we believe, ready to take on that solemn commitment and to implement the convention wholeheartedly. I believe that it is an advisory committee, representative of that wide-ranging spectrum of support, which can best express this permanent commitment and channel British experience and expertise into lasting, practical involvement, so that we can carry forward this great enterprise and, as a nation, make the convention work.

7.34 p.m.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, I find myself in the unusual position of agreeing absolutely with everything that everyone has said. Perhaps that is going a trifle too far; I agreed with most things that everyone has said. That is an unusual occurrence for me. I believe that the Government have performed well on this issue. They have experienced difficulties and they have not overcome all of them. Noble Lords who have followed this matter throughout are aware of points that need further exploration. However, having said that, this is an area where we can offer the Government praise. It is quite nice to be able to do that.

Lord Peston

And unusual!

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, it may be unusual but it is a greater pleasure for that. There are, however, certain aspects of the Bill which worry one, although it gives me pleasure to reflect on what has been achieved. It occurred to me—I think, reasonably—that the methodology which has achieved success here might conceivably be adapted to deal with other matters, particularly as regards the means of mass destruction. The example of what has been done in the area that we are discussing ought to be followed in the nuclear field. That has never happened. All other kinds of methodologies have been tried but we have never achieved a convention, and the ratification of a convention, in the nuclear field. I hope the methodology that has been used in the area we are discussing will at least be considered as regards the nuclear field. I believe that everyone would agree that the dangers inherent in the nuclear field are even greater than those which we face in the area we are discussing.

With that in mind, I had the intention of putting down a provision which all your Lordships would recognise as a probing amendment in order to sound out the Government as to whether they thought that lessons could he learnt from their experience in this area which might be adapted and used in the other area I have mentioned. One cannot properly propose such a course of action at Second Reading; it is a matter for the Committee stage. I devised an amendment for that purpose. Of course such an amendment would not be pressed to a Division; I would not even vote for it myself in such a context. However, such an amendment is often used in order to explore the Government's thinking on a matter. Indeed I believe that an amendment of this kind is one of the most useful tools of the Committee stage.

However, I committed a grave error in letting the Public Bill Office know of my intention before the event. I was a little surprised to receive a note from the clerk who was concerned with the matter which stated that he could not accept the amendments because they were not relevant. My first amendment sought to amend the Title of the Bill—for the purpose of the probing discussion—so that it became the "Nuclear and Chemical Weapons Bill". I envisaged withdrawing the amendment after the exploratory discussion had taken place and that would have been the end of the matter as we should have had the necessary discussion.

However, the clerk—quite properly from his point of view—said that the amendment was not relevant to the Bill as this is a Chemical Weapons Bill. However, the Bill also concerns one of the means of mass of destruction. Therefore it is relevant to compare what is achieved in this Bill with what has been done in other fields and ask ourselves whether we can learn any lessons from the Bill. One can follow such a course ideally in the way I have described; indeed, one cannot do it in any other way. If the Government were to say at this point that they had no objection to such a discussion, nor to informing us about one or two points which might be to our advantage, the technical objection which, quite correctly, has been raised could not, I believe, be raised now. I believe that, if I had tabled the probing amendment instead of bothering the clerk about it, it would have been dealt with without any problems.

I hope that, when the noble and learned Lord, Lord Fraser of Carmyllie, replies to the debate, he will say that he does not mind being probed on this question in the form of an amendment, in the full knowledge that, after the discussion has taken place, the amendment will certainly be withdrawn. What else could I do with it except withdraw it? Under the circumstances that I have outlined, the clerks may agree that there is no objection to putting down this probing amendment.

7.40 p.m.

The Earl of Halsbury

My Lords, this Second Reading tonight finds me in a rather nostalgic mood. Some 70 years ago, not yet having obtained my majority, I sat on the steps of the Throne listening to my father discussing the dangers of chemical warfare on a Motion arising from an accident in a chemical factory in Germany. The Leader of the House in those days, the great grandfather of the noble Viscount who leads our House today, as I remember, took my father to task for alarming the public mind. But my father was unashamed about that because he relied on a model of the gassing of a square mile of central London that I had built him while still a schoolboy. It was a lovely model. I knew nothing of Reynolds numbers or the numeracy of turbulent phenomena. I should love to describe to noble Lords how I made the model and how it worked, but time is late and your Lordships' time very valuable. We have another debate to follow, so I forbear to do so.

My father's attitude was very much that of Lord Fisher, the first Sea Lord before World War I: hit first, hit hard and keep on hitting. It is only the fear of retaliation which keeps the peace. That was a point of view well expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Mayhew. However, it was also expressed in the post-nuclear age by Robert Oppenheimer, the chief executive of Los Alamos, who said that the United States and the Soviet Union were like two scorpions in a bottle, each anxious to sting but each terrified of being stung.

The construction of chemical weapons was a blot on the chemical industry; and the chemical industry is only too anxious to remove that blot by promising full co-operation in the execution of this Bill. Compared with mechanical engineering, the chemical industry is—if I may so call it—a hit sneaky. You cannot take a motor bicycle to pieces and reconstruct it as a sewing machine or a typewriter. But that is what chemical operators are continuously doing, for everything which goes on in the way of a chemical reaction is a disassembly of a selection of some of the 92 elements that exist, and it is reassembly in another form.

That is why inspection of what goes on must he an essential part of chemical weapons control. As I said, the chemical industry will co-operate in the necessary inspection, subject to one condition only. There must be confidentiality of peaceful processes under development by competitors for the future.

In praising the willingness of the chemical industry to co-operate, I must also acknowledge, as the noble Lord, Lord Mayhew, said, the help of the Royal Society of Chemistry, of which I have the honour to be a fellow, and in particular its executive officer for parliamentary affairs, Mr. Stephen Benn, who has been most helpful in providing us with our various briefs.

Broadly, I think that the convention is right. We must patrol ubiquitously for toxic chemicals. We must also patrol for the precursors of those chemicals. What about the precursors of those precursors? I think that that would be going a little too far—we should be trying to inspect everything under the sun. Owing to the volatility of chemical variability, when it comes to tracing compounds back to their ultimate sources—they are usually hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen—we might, without very great care, find ourselves having to patrol people for the production of water.

A point of principle is this. Who will help run the convention? The question of an advisory council has been raised by the right reverend Prelate and others. All I can say to that is no, no, no. I know how advisory councils work; I have been on them. What we want is a Select Committee of both Houses of Parliament with a scientific adviser in attendance to sort out any points that are unclear, technically as regards chemistry. I could easily recommend the secretary of the science policy advisory committee at Sussex University, who has drafted many of the documents which have reached your Lordships.

In scrutinising the Bill, I considered its Long Title and early clauses. A Bill proceeds from the general to the particular. The most general aspect of a Bill is its Long Title. We postpone the title of the Bill in Committee so that we can raise matters that are not strictly speaking covered by the Long Title before settling what the title should be. As regards one or two items in the early sections of the Long Title, I should like to propose counter examples to the parliamentary draftsman. Prior to proposing them as amendments in Committee, I should like to ask him where we stand on the different counterparts. Otherwise I believe that we may end up looking for precursors to precursors in a rather frustrated spirit.

I could take time by giving examples of some questions that arose in my mind. However, I simply ask the noble and learned Lord to give me facilities for talking to the parliamentary draftsman, possibly with my own scientific adviser.

I wish the Bill success. I support it in all its particulars. Such criticisms that I have arc purely friendly criticisms.

7.48 p.m.

Lord Fraser of Carmyllie

My Lords, perhaps I may respond to the noble Earl by saying how much we welcome his reminiscences. It has been a salutary reminder to your Lordships of the time the issue has been under discussion. I am pleased that I now have the opportunity to introduce to your Lordships' House this Bill which allows there to be a proper control in the United Kingdom within the wider context of the convention to which I have already made reference. The noble Earl's expertise in these matters is always welcome in your Lordships' debate.

I thought that the noble Lord, Lord Mayhew, was a little unkind in suggesting that this matter might have been more appropriately handled by the Foreign Office. Certainly as regards the wider issue of the convention, and what was originally to be contained in it, I can see some force in that argument. But after a long period of gestation—some 20 years—it is important for Parliament to introduce into the law of the United Kingdom provisions which will enable us to ratify that convention. It is a critically important convention, being the first treaty to provide for a verifiable world-wide ban of an entire class of weapons of mass destruction. It is very important. I very much hope that we shall move swiftly towards a world-wide ratification of it. But clearly in such matters, where sovereign states are involved, they cannot be compelled to ratify. However, one hopes that at the very least with the United States and Russia concluding their ratification, hopefully in the relatively near future, others will be shamed into joining in. There are obvious states where there will be difficulty in securing ratification and compliance, as the noble Lord will appreciate. However, if nothing else, it is worth recalling the evidence of the Chemical Industries Association which I understand was provided to this House and to another place. It stated: If the United Kingdom failed to be one of the 65 signatory states, this would have a serious effect on the trade relations of many United Kingdom companies that trade in chemicals". So even if that is nothing more than a practical argument, I hope that some states will realise why they should comply.

The noble Lord, Lord Peston, put to me for confirmation a number of points on the facts and timings. His understanding of the position and the figures entirely coincides with mine. He asked whether we needed more publicity for the Bill. I should be delighted to give it as much publicity as possible, but we are alive to the point that he made. We are considering what further publicity will be appropriate when the Bill passes into law, as I hope it will.

One matter with which both he and the right reverend Prelate were concerned, as was the noble Earl, is whether there should be not only an advisory committee but whether it needed to be established on a statutory basis with the express provisions within the Bill. Our view is that the national authority will need advice from many sources. It is doubtless a matter to which we shall return in Committee, but we think it is mistaken to believe that the authority will obtain all the advice it needs from a single committee, however expert that committee might be. We will need advice on the implementation of the convention in the United Kingdom, how the burden which the regulations place on business and academia might be minimised and how compliance monitoring arrangements of the national authority can he made more effective. For those areas of advice we intend to establish an advisory committee. We hope that a single committee will be able to provide the advice that the national authority will need on those subjects. However, it is a new regime and we must be able to modify the arrangements in the light of experience.

I mention one particular matter for your Lordships to consider before we return to the Bill at Committee, if we do so. There are difficult questions about commercial confidentiality. Information coming from commercial research might not readily reach the type of advisory committee that some have in mind. One would not wish to be in a position where those who held that information were not prepared, for fear of disclosure, to bring the national authority along with them.

The noble Lord, Lord Peston, asked a number of questions relating to what he understood might be technical problems in the United States. My understanding of the position is that the destruction of existing chemical weapons is complex, expensive and dangerous. It is no surprise that a country such as the United States, with an enormous stockpile, may face technical difficulties. But we believe that there is no reason to doubt the ability of the United States to fulfil its obligations under the convention.

The noble Lord was also concerned that there might be an effect on research, the point having been raised in briefing that he received. We have already announced that we plan to introduce a system which will considerably reduce the burden of licensing for small users of the Schedule I chemicals. I stress that those chemicals are the most toxic and include the most potent chemical weapons agents. I do not believe that it would he right to have no controls at all on the chemicals. We propose to issue an open general licence which will enable research using the chemicals and in quantities of up to five grammes a year. Possession and use of the chemical within the limits will be subject only to registration with the national authority. I trust that that will reduce the burden on small users to what we believe would be the bare minimum.

Finally, I was asked a number of questions by the noble Lord, Lord Peston, on the article that appeared in the Mail on Sunday and perhaps I may comment on it. 'The Bill is intended to implement a convention which addresses the problem of chemical warfare. That is war between states. It is not intended to deal with terrorism. Measures to counter terrorism are the responsibility of the Home Secretary. However, some of the measures in the Bill—though aimed at implementing the convention—would also help those agencies involved in anti-terrorism. The chemicals procured by the Mail on Sunday are dangerous chemicals, readily enough acknowledged, and as such are scheduled chemicals under the Chemical Weapons Convention. However, those chemicals are also in regular industrial use. Declaration of them is required under the two schedules and the quantities are indicated in the schedules when they have to he declared.

The controls result from the consensus reached during international negotiation of the treaty where it was decided not to have more onerous controls. We have signed the treaty and we believe that our task is now to implement its provisions. The Bill does not provide for full-scale licensing of all scheduled chemicals; it would be out of proportion to the threat from chemical weapons in this country which we see as low. However, the prohibition on chemical weapons is not limited by quantities. Any person who was to hold the chemicals other than for a permitted purpose would be committing an offence under the Bill and would be liable on conviction to a sentence of up to life imprisonment. So while the position may be rather different at present, once the Bill is implemented a severe regime would he in place.

Lord Peston

My Lords, I apologise for interrupting the noble and learned Lord. I hope that I understood him, in which case his remarks are reassuring. Is he saying that we would no longer rely on the code of conduct? That is what the Mail on Sunday was seeking to expose. Would there now be a genuine legal basis to prevent what happened occurring again? Would criminal penalties be involved if anything like that happened again?

Lord Fraser of Carmyllie

My Lords, in trying to get through quickly, I may have unnecessarily shortened my comments on the requirement with regard to the declaration and the quantities that can be held. I can expand on it at a later time, if it would be helpful. I was seeking to emphasise what seems to me to be important. It is that anyone who holds the chemicals for other than a permitted purpose would be committing an offence under the Bill. The penalty to which they would be subject is the most severe: namely, life imprisonment.

I would rather not name the chemicals because the Mail on Sunday responsibly declined to mention one of them. The chemicals are subject to strict trade controls. Trading Schedule 1 chemicals with non-state parties will be banned from the date the convention enters into force and after three years in the case of Schedule 2 chemicals. All the most toxic chemicals (those in Schedule 1) are subject to licensing.

A series of questions was raised with me by the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins. I have to deal with an important Bill relating to chemical weapons, but it is not appropriate for me to comment on whether the type of amendment that he wishes to put down is appropriate. That is not my remit. However, I welcome from the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins, and other noble Lords the unanimous indication of support for this important Bill. I therefore commend it to your Lordships.

On Question, Bill read a second time and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.